The upside of over-engineering
When I was a kid I loved the board game Mousetrap. For those unfamiliar with it, the game involves moving a plastic mouse around a board while simultaneously building a complex, Rube Goldberg-style trap. The objective is to avoid getting caught in the trap while trying to catch the other players' mice.
I have many fond memories of playing Mousetrap, but I can’t remember ever winning the game. In fact, I don’t remember anyone ever winning (and if I had lost to my younger sister, I would definitely remember). We always had too much fun building the mousetrap to bother with the actual game.
Today, I'm not playing Mousetrap (sadly!), but I do sometimes find myself building things that don’t feel too dissimilar from that intricate, over-the-top contraption.
During the pandemic I went deep down some YouTube wormholes, watching countless videos devoted to things like goal setting, note-taking systems, and productivity hacks. I was particularly drawn to August Bradley’s “Life Operating System”. I watched every minute of every video in his 30+ part series, building alongside him until I had my own version of his complex system of linked Notion databases. All told, I estimate I spent more than 50 hours watching the videos and creating the OS.
Yet once I finished building it, I never touched it again.
For awhile I felt immense guilt about this. It seemed like wasted time, and I felt like a quitter. Instead of watching all those YouTube videos and constructing a productivity system, maybe I should’ve done something more . . . productive.
While there is some validity to this criticism (I was indeed, on some level, avoiding difficult work and the harsh reality of the pandemic), I now look back on my abandoned system with a gentler perspective.
For one thing, the time spent building a Notion system I never used paid dividends when I built the Notion system my business runs on today. Moreover, the process that Bradley used to set goals based on values (rather than just outcomes) is something I think about all the time and will likely use for the rest of my life. But mostly, watching the videos and building the system was just a lot of fun.
I believe there’s a lesson here about the nature of productivity and the potential traps we set for ourselves in our pursuit of it. It's too easy to forget that being productive isn't just about the end results—it's also about the process, growth, and joy along the way.
I crave simplicity in most aspects of my life.
But I find there is also beauty in complexity and reward in the journey, and sometimes, that’s the whole point.